How to Succeed in Getting a Rent Controlled Apartment in Santa Monica Without Really Crying

Rent control is a true thing of beauty, except rent control doesn't last forever.

Santa Monica abolished rent control years ago; but I'm still grandfathered in. Unless word of my monkey farm leaks out or I violate my rent agreement in any other way -- my rent only increases a small percentage each year.

During the reign of rent control in Santa Monica, Landlords held actual royal titles along with the titles to their precious buildings. They ruled the town, and the serfs/subjects/renters are, if still under the protection, beholden to them. We're a humble lot, aware that our very shelter can be ripped out from under us and we might be forced to live in some faraway Valley, or banished behind the Orange Curtain.

If some idiot left the village on their own accord, abandoning their apartment, no blatant For Rent sign appeared on the street advertising the vacancy. Instead, hushed whispers spread throughout the land between insiders and friends. Drugs and bodily fluids were exchanged in alleys and at cocktail parties for apartment tip-offs. If an available apartment surfaced, one had to act fast -- and stay on the good side of anyone you knew who knew anyone with apartments. This was the dark ages, there was no email, no Facebook or texting. There was no internet; begging then was old-school and manifested in the form of flowers being sent, and was not tweetable. Courting was not yet dead.

I got the call for my Santa Monica place in 1992 from my savvy friend Jerome Nash, who told me of a magical place opening up: Two-bedrooms, near the beach, with a pool and underground parking. He knew the owner and would put in a good word for me.

You can own, free and clear, a sprawling estate in Thousand Oaks, with horse facilities, three guest cottages and a twelve bedroom mansion, but if you hear of a rent-controlled anything in Santa Monica you jump on it like lions on a zebra kill. Mother Theresa would bless -- then step over -- the poor and drop Princess Diana's full name to get one of these apartments.

As I drove down the street to look at the prospective unit for the first time, I noticed most of the buildings looked suspiciously similar. I figured that on or about 1970, a group of real estate developers were all at the same dinner party hosted by a stoned architect, and everyone got very ill from blinky fish. As a result, they collectively threw up this entire block in one day.

I was excited as I pulled up to the well-kept, modern building to meet the manager. As I walked to the front I tried to look sexy and confident in case the manager I was meeting was peeking out a window, sizing me up as they smoked a joint. I tripped on the sidewalk, recovered, and slickly raised one arm to sniff for sweat, then deftly dropped that hand in front of my mouth to check my breath. My other hand discreetly passed over my crotch to fluff my package. I was in date mode, which included a tight shirt and the understanding that I am totally prepared to put out to get what I wanted. Whether it's a pizza or a palazzo -- both carry the same importance.

When I met the female manager, the tightness in my pants eased. The contact of our hands switched on my charm, as if I had an invisible joy buzzer concealed in my palm. I shook her hand firmly but gently and flashed my store-bought smile. Her middle-aged face didn't get out much anymore and I knew she was anxious to get back to her cats and tawdry novel. This was like a job I wanted, a deal I wanted to close, a romance. She had both the pussy and the prize and though I just wanted the apartment, I made her feel in the first five minutes that I might want her too. I might want that apartment.

She pulled her worn cardigan closed over her t-shirt, as if she were Scarlett O'Hara and I had glimpsed her in the altogether. Perhaps I brought a little water to her well as I let my hand accidentally on purpose touch hers as we entered the elevator. Nervous chatter ensued; I was being sized up. I wished my pants were still fluffed.

I entered the vacant unit, expecting to be excited, but I wasn't. I had a bad feeling -- the same disappointment the world would come to know when you meet someone in person who doesn't look like the photo they used online. One learns many things in life, but the rapid recovery of a public letdown is among the first. Lose or win, everyone needs a Pageant Grin.

The tan vinyl tile in the entry hall was now yellowed as if it had smoked unfiltered Camels. I kept walking, and even though the apartment was empty, I felt someone was still there, like I was going to turn a corner and a man who hadn't bathed in days would be huddled in a corner with crazy hair, whacked-out on chemicals and rocking himself into eventual oblivion.

The rust-colored carpet crunched beneath my feet as I walked in the living room. If this were Japan and I were asked to remove my shoes, I'd rather slip into the kitchen and commit hari-kari instead.  The once-white walls were now stained Joey Heatherton beige, from years of smoke and being hermetically sealed behind forgotten doors. Just like Joey.

A fly flew in my open mouth; probably how the manager sensed my concerns. She asked me if I wanted it. She had others coming as well; but my connection trumped theirs, so I had first dibs. It was like really, desperately wanting a hooker on Santa Monica Boulevard, and you're Hugh Grant and you suddenly find yourself blurting out to whatever limps down the street, Get in the car. 

"I'll take it," I said.

I know some people enter a relationship accepting faults in the other person because they see the potential, underneath the Gap shirts and second-hand shoes. We give our mates a makeover; if I were willing to touch a wall, I could have scratched them and seen that underneath the grime was an apartment that with a little work, would become a jewel. I could see that from where I was safely standing.

I spent the next thirty days renovating the apartment before I moved in. I did whatever work I could, and that is another story.

That first date turned into a 20-year relationship. Potential contains our true beauty, and that lasts forever, for potential means hope, and hope springs eternal.

Fred, the owner of my building is a good man, but most people assume building owners as ogres. When my darling friend and neighbor, Debra Fox, was diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually take her surfing on the giant final wave to heaven, I noticed her rent-controlled unit had dingy walls and bad carpet. I took a shot, called Fred and told him of Debra's illness. He painted and replaced the carpet the next day. He didn't raise her rent; but he did ask what more he could do.

I'm one of the few remaining in my building under the protection of rent control. Neighbors on either side of me pay twice what I do. About ten years ago, my friend Pieter moved to Santa Monica from NYC, and needed an apartment. I knew the building owner's sister -- even she lived in the building at one point -- and introduced Pieter to her one day, with no motive stronger than the introduction. Upon hearing his housing need, she bizarrely suggested that Pieter go to the owner's company picnic -- which was the next day -- and maybe chat someone up and be considered for an upcoming vacancy. Um, okay.

The next day, Pieter went to the picnic in a park he had never been to before, in this new city, alone. Soon he was flipping burgers in that park.  He suddenly found his left leg strapped to the right leg of some stranger. By the end of this picnic that stranger would be yelling, "Call me, Pieter." Soon he handed him the keys to his new apartment.

We might just grow old together, that apartment and I. Good thing it's roomy. I wrote my book, The Pink Marine, here. 


  1. I read this with a nearly-even mix of giggles, envy, admiration, ferklemptness, revulsion, and envy. Oh, and envy. Well done, sir, on every front.

  2. If you ever want a change come visit me in New Mexico.


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